"Thank you, Toronto, you’ve been great.”
Even casual music fans have heard that kind of by-rote toodaloo from spunky popsters and spent rockers as they exit our stages for the night. But do you know what? When it comes to the past season’s summer music festivals, Toronto has been great, at times the focus of North American attention. When the Replacements, at Riot Fest, reunited for their first performance in 22 years. When Joni Mitchell came out of retirement and sang the blues at Luminato. When the indie label Arts & Crafts blew out 10 candles at its Field Trip party with Feist, Broken Social Scene and others, and when Drake blew minds at OVO Fest – he gave us J. Cole, he gave us Lil’ Wayne, he gave us Kanye, he gave us him.
What’s even more heavy is that the bonanza was not even a fluke. “There’s something going on. Toronto has found its expression of live summer music like never before,” says Jeff Cohen, the promoter behind the inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Fest held on the green at Fort York. “I think by 2015 we will be able to boast a festival or major outdoor show on every weekend of the summer.”
Boast away. But, now that the summer is done, when we look at the calendar for next year and beyond, there’s something missing. As Toronto looks to officially brand itself as a so-called “music city,” there is a hole in the vision. We have no megafest. No destination event – no Coachella, no Montreal Jazz, no Lollapalooza, no Osheaga, no Bonnaroo.
The city’s live music scene is just one element attached to a mission led by Mayor Rob Ford this week to Austin, Texas. A number of city councillors and local music industry representatives travelled to the self-branded “Live Music Capital of the World” to formalize the Austin-Toronto Music City Alliance Agreement. The quest is a first-hand witnessing of how America’s 15th largest city raised itself to such high music-scene status and will involve brain-picking on how Toronto can apply the Austin model to itself.
Many of the dots were connected in a recent study done by Music Canada, whose paper Accelerating Toronto’s Music Industry Growth: Leveraging Best Practices From Austin, Texas pinpoints the melodic successes of the Lone Star State capital. The key points involve a high level of co-operation between government and the music-industry players. To start, Austin’s music industry is represented at City Council by the Austin Music Commission. As well, a live music task force created the Austin Music Division, whose mandate is to increase the profile of the music scene locally and beyond, to facilitate communication between music industry stakeholders, to incubate new industry components and to cut through red tape when it comes to such things as sound ordinances and poster policies.
One of the delegates on the Austin mission is Mr. Cohen, the civic-boosting owner of Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern. He sees the establishment of a Toronto music office as the key component. “I’m hoping the Mayor sees how a vibrant music scene attracts young talent to our city (especially the tech sector), attracts business and conventions, boosts tourism and, like Austin, how a city can use its local talent to attract all of those things.”
It’s hard to argue against the merits of an office dedicated to music matters – local promoters have complained about bureaucratic obstruction here since Joni and Neil warbled in Yorkville – but nothing has done more for Austin’s reputation than South by Southwest, an annual spring festival of music, film and interactive events which, in 2012, was directly or indirectly responsible for injecting approximately $190-million (U.S.) into the city’s economy, according to an independent analysis. The “media coverage valuation” from countries around the world totalled nearly $34-million.
What Texas has known for years is what city and provincial politicians here are beginning to understand: That live music is not only important on a cultural level, but can be an economic engine and a tourist magnet. For example, Toronto’s SXSW counterpart, North by Northeast, reported an attendance of 350,000 people this summer, with more than 30 per cent of its audience originating outside the city.
The current trade mission to Austin shows a commitment on behalf of politicians to work hand-in-hand with promoters, club owners and recording-studios. In many ways, Toronto will not only be following Austin’s model, but will be treating the music industry with the same level of respect it has long afforded the film industry.
But Toronto still lacks a marquee attraction on the scale of SXSW. However, the consensus among some of the key players here is that a signature event is not necessarily required. “The city already has an incredibly high profile,” says Live Nation Canada chairman Riley O’Connor. “In terms of the North American concert circuit, Toronto is in the top five performing markets.”
And, adds former Mariposa Folk director Richard Flohil, “I think Toronto already is the most active live music scene in North America. I’m not sure we need a giant new festival.”
If not a Coachapalooza, it’s possible a boutique event held at a distinctive venue is the answer. In July of 1972, Toronto was the musical centre of the world with that summer’s Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Island, which Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot attended and where Neil Young led a sing-along Sugar Mountain. Much more recently, the indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene has curated festivals at the idyllic locale. “I’d never been to a festival where you take a boat ride to,” says BSS’s Brendan Canning. “It was a uniquely Toronto event I think.”
The right venue for a signature festival is a point of contention. Promoter Mr. Cohen was instrumental in seeing the potential of the commons area of Fort York, the site of his four-day TURF event and other major events this summer. Now Mr. Cohen, who consults with the Ontario government and with music-friendly city councillors Josh Colle, Gary Crawford and Mike Layton, has a vision of developing a permanent park-set outdoor concert venue, perhaps within Exhibition Place. “I’m looking for something that could hold 7,500 to 10,000 people, which is a venue size the city still doesn’t have in downtown Toronto in a green space,” he says. “It’s sadly missing, and we miss out on shows here because we don’t have it.”
Mr. O’Connor isn’t sure a new venue is required, and points to Live Nation’s Echo Beach, which successfully hosted the first-ever CBC Music Festival this spring, as a suitable mid-size venue. But the veteran promoter does applaud the new-found co-operation between the live music industry and local and provincial politicians. “In the past we were totally ignored, but there’s a voice now that will be listened to at City Hall.”
Many agree that the city’s already vibrant scene and infrastructure are ready to be exploited even more. No festival here does a better job of activating the existing venues than NXNE, an annual cavalcade of club shows and other events. “I think Toronto has always gotten its cues from cities like Chicago and New York,” says NXNE’s manager of communication and operations Mike Tanner, who is part of the Austin delegation. “The template there is to not have those big festivals built on the Woodstock model, but a succession of strong events.”
One of the reasons Mariposa left Toronto in 1996 was the hassle it received from buzz-harshing city officials. Those days are over. Mr. O’Connor recalls the days when his truck drivers outside Massey Hall on Victoria Street were regularly pestered by police officers. Those days are waning too, and the future for more music, whether in the form of a blockbuster festival or not, is bright. “The city is getting bigger, it’s getting more cosmopolitan and it’s getting more dynamic,” says Mr. O’Connor. “And in the next 10 years we’re going to see growth on the music landscape that’s never been seen before.”